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Counter-will

March 25, 2010

There is nothing more frustrating and demoralizing for a parent than to give an order and have the child do the exact opposite. It triggers anger, doubt, and even fear of the child because mom and dad feel like they have lost control and that the kid is somehow in charge. Honoring one's parents is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism; in fact it is one of the 10 commandments. So if the child is in a seemingly perpetual state of defiance, parents might wonder what kind of "monster" they have created. However, that anxiety can be greatly reduced by understanding that this dynamic is natural and can be remedied very easily. It is the expression of a G‑d given instinct called counter-will.

G‑d created counter-will to protect primary attachments – parent/child, spouses, siblings. We would certainly want our child to have a visceral, negative reaction to a strange man telling her to get in his car. I once saw a young mother and her toddler in a store. A complete stranger approached them and loudly proclaimed, "What an adorable child! Come here, sweetheart," followed by an unsolicited pinch on the child's cheek. The child immediately jerked away and clutched his mother. The lady then said, "My, he's not very friendly, is he?" and the mother was left to apologize for her son's "rude" behavior. I wanted to shout, "Stop apologizing, Mom! He did exactly what he was supposed to do. He's obviously attached to you and this lady is a fool." When a person to whom we do not feel attached tells us to do something, we experience an imperative to do the exact opposite.

How does this play out in the parent-child relationship? The depth and vitality of our children's attachment to us allows us to direct them without their realizing it, instead of micromanaging their every move. We need to take advantage of every opportunity throughout the day - even seemingly small ones - to draw our children close and strengthen that innate primary connection. They are less likely to display counter-will when they are experiencing a secure attachment to us.

From a developmental perspective, small children can attach to only one thing at a time; they do not have a conscious sense of being attached to mom and dad while playing with blocks, watching a video, etc. Therefore, if I call out to my four-year-old while she is engaged in an activity, "We're going! Put on your shoes!" without first reaffirming her attachment to me, she may feel instinctively compelled to throw her shoes out the window or hide behind the couch. However, I can catch my child's attention and reconnect by entering her space and interacting on her level. It sounds something like this: "Wow, that's a beautiful block castle you're building. I also loved to build with blocks when I was a kid," and then casually add, "You know, we're leaving in a couple of minutes. Please take one more minute to finish up and then get your shoes on." I gave her a bridge to transition from what she is focused on back to what I need her to do. She is now much more likely to follow my instructions than to hide her shoes or yell at me. This may seem like a daunting approach at first, and one that will burn out parents very quickly. But it is useful to think of it as a progression in which there is an initial active training phase (for both parent and child) that quickly transitions into an easier, sustainable and more fluid process.

Defusing counter-will by increasing attachment is an easy way to regain dignity as parents. We can even use it to progress in our own spiritual development. We are more likely to want to follow G‑d's will when we feel attached to Him. Therefore, He gives us numerous opportunities every day to connect – through the mitzvot (commandments). The root of the word mitzvah is tzavsa, which means to connect or join with. We come closer to G‑d and deepen our spirituality by simply doing a mitzvah. Because G‑d knows that we are primed to do His will when we feel connected to Him, He gives us many opportunities to connect throughout the day and around the year. Therefore, if we want our children to follow our practical and moral guidance, we should emulate the Creator and draw them close before making our demands.

Needy Children

March 18, 2010

Some kids are needier than others. A needy child demands the parent's attention in various ways – through talking a lot, asking for lots of things (food, toys, material items, privileges, treats), responding to minor stresses with intense drama, and otherwise seeking lots of attention and connection. Such children can exhaust their parents. In most cases, there are other kids in the family who also need attention – perhaps there is a toddler and/or infant. It's hard to deal with really little ones and a bigger child who "should" be past the needy stage but somehow isn't. What can parents do?

Helping Your Needy Child

Needy children are that way because of inborn temperamental traits (unless they are only temporarily needy due to illness or a particular stress or upset). In most cases, they will tend to remain more demanding throughout childhood. For this reason, parents need to help themselves as well as their child. Here are some strategies for both:

  • Try to take parenting breaks – a night out for a class, regular contact with friends, a personal hobby or exercise routine. Don't lock yourself up in the house all the time with a needy child – it won't be good for either of you!
  • Read parenting books and take parenting courses – you need more information and options than parents of non-needy children. Keep picking up new tips and strategies because every little bit helps.
  • Don't feel obliged to constantly listen to or attend to your needy child. You can set limits on the demands that are put upon you. You can say things like: "Please don't ask me anything else for the next hour – I need some quiet time."
  • Even when your needy child doesn't like it, you can say "no." "No, I can't watch right now." "No, you can't buy another sweater." "No, you can't have anything more to eat." Of course, try to say "yes" whenever possible, but don't sweat over saying "no." Teach your needy child not to whine or tantrum when he or she doesn't get the answer that was desired.
  • Don't blame your child for being needy and demanding – it wasn't his or her choice. Try to be compassionate; the child is born with a bottomless pit and it actually hurts.
  • Use rules and structure to set limits on what the child can have and/or ask. For instance, "You can ask me for only one new item every two weeks, so think carefully about what you want to ask for."
  • Use "Emotional Coaching" (naming your child's feelings) to help your child cope with the disappointment of not getting what he or she wanted. For instance, "I know that it's frustrating not to be able to have that toy when everyone else in the class seems to have it. That's really annoying. I know you're not happy about it."
  • Stay calm when dealing with this child. Manage your own stress as well as possible (try to get some sleep!) and call a professional counselor when you're having trouble staying "nice."

The Torah tells us to "educate a child according to his way" which means that we will have to individualize our parenting strategies to some extent for each one of our children. When we have a needy child, we have to recognize the child's challenge and our own, and do our best to lovingly address both.

Can't Let Go

March 12, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

I am a single mother who raised my daughter alone. We are extraordinarily close, and people often mistake us for sisters. Yet my daughter has chosen to visit Israel for a post-high school volunteer and Torah program. This means that I won't see her for a whole year, rather than once a month like I was expecting. While I am proud that she has chosen to visit Israel before starting college, I can't seem to muster the enthusiasm to send her off with a smile. I feel like I am losing my best friend and the thought of her leaving makes me so sad. I know I need to let her go, but I don't know how.

Can't Let Go


Dear Can't Let Go,

Your letter vividly conveys your predicament. It seems like your status as a single mother has left you exquisitely vulnerable to the challenges of launching a child into adulthood. On account of the pain that you are experiencing, I would strongly urge you to seek support for yourself, whether from a counselor or another single mother who will understand your feelings.

Your daughter is doing what she needs to be doing right now, and although her departure is more abrupt than the gradual process you were expecting, the end result is the same. She is leaving home to begin an independent life.

However, the beginning of her life does not and should not signal the end of yours. It is also necessary for you to create a life independent from her. Despite being so close to your daughter, I am sure there was at least a small part of yourself that was not expressed within the context of your mother-daughter relationship. Now is the time to rediscover that part of your personality, and let it out of its captivity.

Perhaps you are interested in remarrying. You are still young, and could enjoy many years with a new partner. Perhaps you have a taste for adventure that was impossible to act on when you were bound by a school calendar. Perhaps you also have a desire to travel, although I do not recommend traveling to the same place as your daughter, at least initially. Perhaps you have a talent in art or photography that you would enjoy developing. Whatever your desire, the important thing is that it is yours, and it can open the door to a new world of experiences and friendships.

It is hard to let a child go out into the world. It is even harder when you do not have the security of a marital relationship to fall back on. However, there is really no choice except to let go. It is not healthy to hold on to a child who is ready to begin adulthood. You owe it to your daughter and yourself to face this challenging time with courage, and to get yourself the support you need.

A basic principal in Jewish thought is that challenges have the potential to reveal hidden facets of our personalities as well as strengths. In time, I believe you will be able to look back upon this challenging time as one of self-discovery.

Good Luck,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

Jealousy in the Family

March 4, 2010

It's pretty normal for kids to be jealous of their siblings, but it isn't pleasant for anyone while jealous feelings persist. Indeed, the Torah says that jealousy is a toxic emotion that "is the cause of the decomposition of a person's bones" (Proverbs 14:30). It is obviously an emotion that causes terrible harm. It's best if we can help our kids move out of this trait before it takes firm root in their personalities. An important tool for doing this is developing the "we" mentality.

The "we" mentality is a feeling of unity, as in "We Goldmans like to read on Shabbat" or "We Silvers love to eat popcorn!" "We" is group identification, a feeling of belonging to a larger system. It is an extension of "I" into a larger unit – in this case, the family unit. When a child feels a "we-ness" he or she feels less competition and more identification with siblings. "We" is an inclusive word rather than a word that causes separation and rift and therefore it is the word we want our children to be most comfortable with. While there will always be room for "I," there is also an important place for "we."

Parents can help their kids develop this group consciousness using a variety of techniques.

  • Use the family name when calling your kids. For instance, "I want all the Bergers downstairs for dinner right now please!"
  • Whenever one child deserves a reward, make sure that all the kids in the family benefit. For instance, Chani has "stayed dry" all night, so all the kids get chocolate milk for breakfast (This cultivates a "way to go, Chani!" feeling amongst the sibs).
  • Whenever you see sibling cooperation in action (playing or sharing nicely, for instance) comment on the siblinghood ("Wow, what sweet sisters you are today!").
  • Instead of one-on-one times in the family schedule, create group times. For instance, "it's story time for the little ones now" or "the big ones need some private time" or "we Shiffmans are having a picnic this Sunday."
  • Call all children under the age of 5 "my babies" as in, "How are all my babies this morning?" or, "What a delicious bunch of babies we have here." This helps toddlers and pre-schoolers stay "little" for a bit longer – until they tell you not to call them a baby.

Some children are born with more "jealous genes" than others and consequently removing this trait will be a little harder. However, even if it takes more time or effort, it will be worth it in the end. No child enjoys experiencing the pain of jealousy. Although it's not all in a parent's hands, anything the parent can do to help is beneficial. It is another step toward peace.

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

What makes your child tick? How can you learn to communicate better so your child will listen? Dealing with bedtime fights? Teaching gentleness? Arranging allowances and chores?

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